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Rebuilding Travel: Industry Leaders Shared Current Trends and Vision for the Future at First Ever AdventureConnect in Rhode Island

5 Minute Read

On 13 April 2022, Johnson & Wales University’s International Travel and Tourism Studies Department (JWU) partnered with the Adventure Travel Trade Association (ATTA) to feature renowned adventure travel leaders at the first-ever interactive AdventureConnect gathering in Rhode Island. The theme of the event was “The Future of Travel and How You Can Make a Difference,” and the goal was to share common strategies for rebuilding the future of travel through a sustainable and inclusive lens. 

Created to emphasize worldwide tourist issues, a hybrid panel discussion hosted by Russell Walters, Regional Director for North America, ATTA, and featuring Bruce Poon Tip, Founder of G Adventures, Beth Santos, CEO and Founder of Wanderful, Heather Kelly, Senior Research Manager for ATTA, and Dr. Vincie Ho, Executive Director for RISE Travel Institute began the event. 

Panelists from left to right, Heather Kelly, Dr. Vincie Ho, Beth Santos, Bruce Poon Tip

Russell Walters and Michael Sabitoni, Associate Professor & Dept. Chair, Food & Beverage + Travel & Tourism Studies at JWU welcomed attendees to the event and introduced the panel. Heather Kelly then shared some current research around trends and indicators in the industry, from ATTA’s 2022 Industry Trends Snapshot report (to be released in the coming weeks; the 2021 Industry Trends Snapshot report can be downloaded here), and a recent research report Frequent Travelers, Climate and What to Do: Travelers Share Their Thoughts

Respondents to ATTA’s 2022 Industry Trends Snapshot survey say that e-bike cycling is the hottest trending adventure activity, with road cycling and mountain biking also remaining in the top 10. Snowshoeing is also becoming much more popular, entering the top 10 for the first time in recent years. Adventure travelers are looking for custom itineraries, greener/sustainable/low-impact itineraries, slow travel, domestic/regional travel, and expert or specialist-guided trips. They are seeking new experiences off the beaten path, especially those that involve cultural encounters and traveling like a local. The hottest trending destinations are the Mediterranean, Western Europe, the United States, Scandinavia, and the Caribbean. Domestic travel is improving for 70% of respondents, and international travel is improving for 80% (bearing in mind it was worse off to start). 

When it comes to climate, frequent travelers are interested in taking action to reduce their impact on the environment during their travels, but they are not sure what to do and are looking for support to overcome barriers. Fifty-seven percent of respondents said affordability is a challenge to taking climate action, and 43% said education is where they need help–they are looking to travel companies to provide information so they can make informed decisions.

Frequent travelers are most interested in purchasing from companies that are using more fuel-efficient / electric transportation; adopting electricity, heating, and cooling efficiencies; and sustainably sourcing food. Survey respondents are also likely to support renewable energy projects and forestry projects.

The panel discussion then continued with adventure travel experts sharing their experiences and suggestions on how the industry can make a difference. Beth Santos said travel is about challenging preconceptions, trying something new, and getting uncomfortable. Dr. Vincie Ho added that travelers really want to connect with other people, as well as with their own roots and history. This includes people and places that are in their own backyard–it is encouraging that people are intentionally looking to better connect with their own local community.

Bruce Poon Tip reminded the audience that current trends are still hard to gauge, as not all countries have reopened. There is still inherent risk in traveling, as COVID has not gone away, but people are becoming more purposeful in the way they travel and are looking for more meaningful experiences. 

The panel then discussed the importance of educating travelers about their impact on the world. The consumer has to create demand; while the operators hold some responsibility, the traveler is the one with the biggest influence. The only way companies will change is if the consumers themselves demand it. 

Although education is important, and travelers in general are becoming more conscious of their climate impact, budget is still a concern for many. Beth Santos suggested that travelers can be encouraged to realize that yes they are spending more, but it makes travel better for everyone, and this awareness and willingness to pay pushes the industry to do better as well. It’s hard to take that first step, and the increasing number of options and choices involved in sustainability can lead to choice fatigue and the traveler booking a pre-arranged mass market trip because it’s just easier. Encouraging consumers to take even small steps toward more sustainable travel, and normalizing these choices, is the place to start.

Dr. Vincie Ho mentioned that sustainability is not just about the environment, it’s about how the changing environment also impacts all the communities we’re visiting, which are disproportionately being affected by our actions. It’s so much more than bringing a reusable water bottle. 

Russell Walters asked the panel what they see as the biggest obstacles toward making tourism a force for good. Bruce Poon Tip responded that government policy is the single biggest thing–countries are desperate to attract tourists back and are willing to compromise and retract some of the pro-sustainability efforts that were made during COVID. 

According to Dr. Vincie Ho, to create a future of tourism that is truly regenerative and inclusive, we need to get more people of color, Indigenous people, women, people with disabilities, and other underrepresented groups in leadership positions. Only they can tell us how tourism impacts them and people like them. Indigenous wisdom can also contribute to the climate change conversation. We need to create a future of tourism that is for everyone. 

Takeaway guidance from the panels suggested that adventure travel industry members should be:

  • Sharing resources and holding each other accountable to establish plans and take real actions
  • Encouraging governments and tourism boards to recognize adventure travel as one high-value way to bring travelers to their destinations
  • Incorporating local products into the value chain and bringing local knowledge and resources into decision making
  • Educating the consumer through media. Wanderful has created an Anti-Oppression toolkit to help content creators think about and write about travel in a way that amplifies historically underrepresented voices and stories, as well as local communities. The industry’s content and editorial teams can be pressured to follow suit. 
  • Remembering that every traveler is a storyteller. They are posting about their trip experiences and the destination they visited, and RISE Travel Institute is trying to give travelers the tools to do things more mindfully before, during, and after their trip, through their new Destinations RISE: A Conscious Travel Series. This course will help travelers better understand and respect the history of the culture they are visiting and ways to maximize their positive impact on the destination.
  • Bringing people back together as a community and preserving cultural heritage. This starts with dialogue with local communities, as they are the most vulnerable people. They need to both gain from visitors and want the travelers there, and should be welcomed to contribute in a positive way.

Directly following the panel discussion, speakers and local industry attendees participated in a networking reception and local craft beer tasting in JWU’s state-of-the-art Bigelow Beverage Classroom. JWU hospitality students were invited to join the reception and learn more from the personal experiences of industry experts.

The event concluded with an invitation-only capacity audience viewing of the first-ever public screening of the critically acclaimed travel documentary, The Last Tourist. Filmed in over 16 countries and guided by the world’s leading tourism and conservation visionaries, this film reveals the real conditions and consequences of one of the largest industries worldwide through the forgotten voices of those working in its shadow. 

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